(Finally) The Last-Minute 2012 PreviewBy: Ben | March 9th, 2012
Today I looked at my calendar and realized that MLS First Kick is only hours away. I also realized, though, that I hadn’t written any sort of “preview” for the season. My bad. So, with today being a professional day at school, I figured I’d catch up on the 2012 prediction curve and look at what could happen in the coming season. For my preview, I decided to organize our lovely league’s 19 clubs not by conference, but by four categories that, yes, I completely made up. This includes “Stars”, those teams whom we can expect to carry success from 2011 into 2012, “Extra Push-ers”, who are just on the cusp of glory but need that little shove over the edge, “Wild Cards”, who seem to have an equal chance of jumping or tumbling in the standings this year, and “Warning Notice”, who, frankly, need to clean up their act. These groupings are based on how well the team is projected to do in 2012, with consideration of their 2011 outcome and changes made in the offseason. I’m sure I don’t need to explain that this is far from an exact science, and that many of our predictions will inevitably be wrong, but, as our friend Henry would say, c’est la vie. Enjoy.
LA Galaxy: Come on, even Chivas fans have accepted that Galaxy is the king of MLS. Look at this friggin’ lineup: you’ve got the DP Trinity of Keane, Donovan, and Becks, with backup from both the youth explosion of Juninho, and Edson Buddle, and veterans such as Andrew Boyens and Pat Noonan. Defense could concievably be a problem, given Omar Gonzalez’s injury while on loan in Germany, and international duty could take a toll on the roster in the summer months, but there remains little doubt in my mind that LA will be making a run for a second MLS Cup.
Seattle: We tend to underestimate Seattle. Despite disappointing playoff runs, the team that essentially carries our attendance numbers has quietly gone three for three in US Open Cup runs. Eddie Johnson, back from a run around Europe, could be a powerful addition, though it will be hard for the club to fill in the hole left by Kasey Keller. At the end of the day, Seattle could have another stellar season, but it will take a solid effort from Rosales and Montero to break their postseason blues.
Salt Lake: In 2011 RSL pushed through the injury of their playmaker Javier Morales, going on to knock the favored Sounders out of the Playoffs. It was only in the Western Conference Final against the Galaxy, widely considered the best game of the year, that they lost, rounding out a solid season. Going into their 2012 opener, though, a similar rally will be necessary, as Salt Lake lost a number of key players to trades, retirement and the expansion draft in the off-season. Kreis’s boys will be depending a lot on young talent, such as the newly signed Enzo Martinez, if they should want to make a run against LA or Seattle.
Dallas: There is a certain caveat to saying that Dallas is about to have a good season: it could be their last. With 2010 MVP David Ferreira back to join US star Brek Shea and the Panamanian Blas Pérez, 2012 could surely be the year that Hoops fans have been waiting for. Even with their 2010 MLS Cup appearance, it seems that Dallas has been undervalued in recent years, as we tend to ignore that the team’s victory against Pumas in the CCL was the first ever by an American club on Mexican soil. In 2012, the stars are very literally aligning in Dallas’s favor, and a run at the Western Conference title could easily come to fruition. I submit, though, that, as much as 2012 will be a proud year in Dallas, it won’t last much past that. Success this season will surely draw Shea and Ferriera toward Europe, leaving Dallas in a goal scoring draught. It may be irrelevant to this year, but it’s definitely food for thought.
- Extra Push-ers
Kansas City: I honestly think that the degree to which Sporting’s 2011 rebranding was a success was the most criminally understated story of 2011. In 2010, Sporting was lost. They’d floundered in the standings since 2005, and their lack of wins was coupled with a serious lag in attendance. Only a year later, their home at Livestrong Park is the envy of the league, as is consistently filled by supporters coming to see the club that finished atop the East in 2011. Vermes may have lost Omar Bravo, but, with both Teal Burnbury and Graham Zusi, his youth talent is arguably the best in the league. It’s time for Sporting to take the next step, and use its thoroughly deep roster to solidify its position as a force for MLS teams to reckon with.
Philadelphia: Okay, so they lost Le Toux. Get over it. The Union boast Freddy Adu, Danny Mwanga, Josué Martínez, Michael Farfan, and Roger Torres. Their progress since inception has been positive: they played what qualifies as a good starting season in 2010, then made a playoff run in 2011. Should Adu jell with what is admittedly still a fairly new team, Philly may find the extra push they need to dominate the East, a conference still ripe for the taking. That goalscoring potential is definitely enough to claim glory in a Conference whose top team was only the 5th best overall last year.
Houston: It’s the season of solidarity for Houston. They’ve finally found their own home, the gorgeous downtown facility that is BBVA Compass Stadium, which is set to open in May. The real question is whether they’ll able to keep it full after the buzz of their MLS Cup Final run in 2011 wears off. Brad Davis is sure to notch countless goals, but at least one member of his support staff will need to step up. The team will be without Brian Ching, and its top returning scorers (Geoff Camero, Bobby Boswell, and Will Bruin) each managed only five goals last year. If Adam Moffat and Luiz Camargo can invigorate the mid, it could be a stellar 2012. If not, we can only expect attendance at their new home to match their record. Either way, their “push” will come from the midfield.
Columbus: It seems that Columbus’s “rebuilding” has sputtered. Don’t get me wrong, 2011 wasn’t bad, but the offseason losses of Robbie Rogers and leading scorer Andrés Mendoz isn’t going to help a team looking to return to its former Cup-winning glory. Further, the Crew, like many other professional sports teams in Ohio, are having trouble competing with the Buckeyes for fans. Chad Marshall could definitely provide enough of a boost from the back for Emilio Rentería to find the net, but a lot of responsibility is going to fall on Eddie Gaven.
Portland: I don’t know what it is about the Northwest, but these people know how to support soccer. Sure, Portland didn’t quite make their way into “Best Inaugural Season Ever” discussions, but their attendance was a huge part of MLS’s overall attendance rise. Even fans here in New York stood in awe of their rendition of the national anthem, and Timber Joy is probably the most badass team mascot in professional sports. Next time someone calls soccer wussy, remind them that, while they have cheerleaders, Portland has a dude with a chainsaw. As for 2012, the loss of Kenny Cooper could be big, the team has proven that, with Jack Jewsbury at the helm, big things can happen. Jeld- Wen field deserves to strike fear in the hearts of opponents, and it seems that it already has, as eventual champions LA Galaxy lost 3-0 there in August, and Chicago Fire let 4 goals in in April. If not necessarily the Western frontrunner, Portland definitely has the stuff to be a solid mid-to-top team, and will surely help attendance numbers along the way.
- Wild Cards
New York: It must be tough to be Hans Backe. He is, for the New York Red Bulls, in a very similar situation as Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos is regarding the Greek economy. Papademos seems to have all the right things in place for the market to start turning around- a bailout from the European Union, the seizing of various toxic debt assets, and new settlements with creditors. But a rebound just isn’t happening yet, and Greece continues to drag the European economy, still clawing back from the brink of the Great Recession. Similarly, Backe’s lineup boasts Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Juan Agudelo, Joel Lindpere, Kenny Cooper, Dane Richards, and Dax McCarthy; all big names, but all to no avail. Even with the loss of Tim Ream, New York is really one of the strongest MLS teams on paper, and by all accounts should be dominating out league. But it continues to under-deliver, barely making the playoffs in 2011, and going out in the first round against San Jose in 2010. I’d be lying to you if I were to say that I know why, and I suspect that Backe is at a similar loss. New York will be a wild card in 2012 in the same sense that it has been for the last few years: the club really should be doing well, and may, but could definitely find itself as inept as it often is.
Colorado: What makes Colorado a Wild Card is how much we simply don’t know about the team as a whole. Coming off Cup glory in 2010, the Rapids faced a bomb of a season, finishing 5th overall in the West. 2012 brings in a lot of questions: How will things work out with new coach Oscar Pareja, who didn’t make many big changes over the offseason? Will the attacking playmaker Martín Rivero, who joined on loan from Rosario Central, ease the pressure of Colorado’s stringent strategic outline? And, most importantly, will Conor Casey, the fulcrum of the 2010 Championship team, be in full form after missing the second half of last season to injury? If the answers to these questions are positive, there’s no reason why Colorado can’t succeed in 2012. If not, they’re pretty doomed.
Chicago: The fate of the Fire really rests with Frank Klopas. Taking over in May, he rejuvenated a struggling Fire, bringing them a 7-2-1 record in their last nine games, an appearance in the US Open Cup final, and a position within four points of playoff birth. He’s gone on to use his postseason to the fullest, signing two South Americans, and brokering new deals with Pavel Pardo and Marco Pappa. In 2012, with Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko leading the offense, it’s entirely reasonable to say that the Fire could be playoff contenders. It all depends on how Klopas’s efforts unfold.
Montreal: Look, I’m sure I don’t need to give the “THIS IS AN EXPANSION TEAM” talk. We all know that it would be wrong to expect too much from Montreal, and that most teams don’t soar in their first years. With Brian Ching and Justin Braun on board, it doesn’t look like the club will be so bad, and the defensive strategy they’ve announced under Jesse Marsch could very well be successful. Montreal should focus on building and learning, and I’m sure the club will.
- Warning Notice
Toronto:: Five years, no success. And now, no De Ro. Despite having the league’s third highest payroll, TFC hasn’t been able to find any chemistry on the field, missing the playoffs in 2011 for the 5th year in a row. It isn’t pretty, and it’s a shame, given Toronto’s strong base of fan support. The club has done fairly well in the CONCACAF Champions League, but it’s about time that TFC rolled up its sleeves and made the freaking playoffs. Signings like Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans will definitely help, but a failure in 2012 will surely test the patience of an already disappointed city.
Chivas: There is only one thing going for Chivas, and his name is Juan Pablo Angel. Unfortunately, at 36, Angel may not be “going” at quite the rate he used to. Keeper Dan Kennedy should continue his strong play from 2011, a surprise return given his huge 2012 injury, but the loss of Justin Braun is big. It looks like we’re going to have to wait a few more years for the club’s investment in youth development to pay off, given its tendency to allow its better players finish off their polishing elsewhere.
DC: Even with Chris Pontius, Andy Najar, and the heroic Dwayne De Rosario, our league’s most storied club missed its fourth consecutive playoff birth in 2011. Olsen needs to end this. The acquisition of forward Maicon Santos is a good start, but may not be enough to help DC, who simply lacked luster through most of last year. But that’s only half of Olsen’s responsibility this year, as the coach will have to play a good deal of politics in 2012 and find some solution to DC’s stadium woes. Frankly, I don’t care if the answer lies in Baltimore; what’s best is what’s best. To avoid a move, though, Olsen needs to rejuvenate the club’s field work, perhaps thus renewing interest in soccer locally. I really think that DC can turn it around, but it will be no easy task.
Vancouver: New coach Martin Rennie will be looking to build form among a frenzied Whitecaps in 2012. Like their co-newbies in Portland, Vancouver has a huge fan base, and its home at BP Place is a fine one. But unlike Portland, the Whitecaps totally floundered last year. There is definitely a lot to hope for: Rennie turned the club’s roster on its head, letting 12 players go and adding 15, including his old friend Sebastian Le Toux. But there is a lot of ground to cover, and a whole lot of respect that needs to be earned from the rest of the league. Of all the “Warning Notice” teams, I have to say that this is the one with the most hope.
San Jose: Bobby Convey’s gone, leaving all the pressure on Chris Wondolowski. This isn’t really anything new: Wondo scored more goals in 2010 than the next three top scorers for San Jose combined. But that’s really all San Jose has, and it simply isn’t enough. Their playoff luck in the past few years has been just that, luck, and the clock is about to strike midnight on their succession of Cindarella stories. Sorry, but the facts are the facts: San Jose is going to have a rough 2012.
New England: And the most hopeless team in MLS is, drumroll please…. Come on, there’s no surprises here. Benny Feilhaber was just one of New England’s many disappointments of 2011, a season of thorough folly and shocking futility. If not for keeper Matt Reis, the club’s record of giving up 58 goals in 34 games could have easily been twice as bad. And it’s not like people haven’t noticed. Even in Boston, a huge soccer market and a hub of sports fandom, the Revs were lucky to sneak by with a 13,000 attendance average. Even the new signing Jose “Pepe” Moreno doesn’t seem to want to be there, announcing soon after joining the club that he’d rather be playing at Columbia’s Once Caldas. Ladies and gents, prepare to witness the downfall of a downfall. College teams could beat New England.
Four hours and 2600 words later, there it is. And so, we enter 2012. Let the games begin.